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From Babel to Pentecost

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Yesterday was Pentecost, when the church celebrates the giving of the Spirit to the disciples and the beginning of the the global church. We heard the story of Pentecost told Godly Play style, and then responded to the gift of the Spirit in song and prayer and reflection, with some more verses of scripture and poetry to help us along. Let's start wth the text of the Godly Play story...


A long time ago, the people of earth decided to build a tower. As they built it higher and higher, they became proud of their work, They thought they could reach heaven, perhaps even become gods themselves. God realised their ambition and arrogance knew no bounds, and so he confused their languages. They could no longer understand one another, so their tower was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Perhaps this is a true story, or perhaps it is a story that holds truth. However it came to pass, the people of the earth spoke different languages, and while there was beauty in the difference, the people could no longer work or worship in unity, and they were scattered.

Years upon years passed, and then there came a man called Jesus who said he would draw all people to himself. He said and did many more extraordinary things besides, and some who followed him came to believe that he was no ordinary man but God in flesh. He reminded the people of what God had always told them, that they must love one another and act with mercy and justice and humility.

Many believed in him and in his words, but others were scared and angered, and so they took him and they hung him on a cross, and there he died and was taken away to be buried. But on the morning of the third day, his tomb was empty, and he appeared to his friends. He still bore his wounds, but he spoke and broke bread as he had before, no ghost but alive once more. And those who believed knew that he had conquered death and the evil that had killed him, and that he was giving them a taste of the life that was to come. Forty days he remained with them, and then he was taken up to heaven, leaving them with a command to make disciples of all peoples, and a promise that the Spirit of God would come to them to help them accomplish the work.

Ten days later, as Jerusalem filled with people who had come to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, marking the first harvest and remembering the giving of the Torah, those who had followed Jesus most closely were gathered together. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. And then they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

They ran out into the street, and they began to tell the people of Jesus. And though the people gathered in the city were Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Cretans and Arabs, they all understood what they heard. They were amazed by what they heard, and many believed and joined those who followed Jesus. Those who believed devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. They met every day and had everything in common, and more joined them.

The confusion of languages that began at the tower did not end that day. The beauty in their differences remained and was not diminished, but a new language was added to their number, a divine language which could be translated into every human tongue. And in that language was the hope that the people could work and worship in unity once more.

I wonder which part of the story had you most excited?

I wonder which part of the story you would have most wanted to see for yourself?

I wonder which part of the story you find most difficult to believe and why?

I wonder what questions this story has left you wanting to ask?

Later in the service, we heard a series of short Bible verses about the Spirit. I wanted us to hear that colection of verses, because I wanted us to remember that the Spirit is not just for Pentecost, and she does not only work in the way she did then. The coming of the Spirit in wind and fire and miraculous speech was bold and dramatic and unmistakeable, and the Spirit continues to come in bold and dramatic and unmistakeable ways, but we must not limit her to such displays, because she can be quiet and gentle and subtle too.

That often gets lost in the language of the church. We talk about charismatic or Spirit-fllled worship, and we imagine people speaking in tongues and dancing in the aisles, and those are wonderful experiences for those who have them, but such a narrow definition risks taking something away from those of us for whom charismatic or Spirit-filled worship looks very different.

I have joked that if I learnt one thing during my three years studying at a college with a strong charismatic tradition, it’s that I am not charismatic, or at least not in the way that word has come to be used in the church. I might feel the urge to lift my hands in worship every now and then, and once in a blue moon I might even dance, but that is certainly not my default setting at 9am on a Monday morning, and I have never once spoken in tongues. I once made the mistake of sharing this observation with Mike, and when I said that if I have learnt anything at college, it’s that I’m not charismatic, his reply was “no, not in any way”.

A little unkind perhaps, but not wholly unfair, and it does raise an important point about the importance of our characters in our encounters with the Spirit. I’m not a big exciting personality, and so I tend not to experience the Spirit in big exciting ways, but that does not mean I do not experience the Spirit. I am by nature rational and contemplative, and so I generally experience the Spirit in rational and contemplative ways. I feel the Spirit most when my sermon clicks into place and I feel the prick of tears at the back of my eyes which tells me I’ve found what it is I need to say, or when I sit in silent prayer and have an overwhelming sense of peace or presence. Others I know are by nature relational and experience the Spirit most in encounters with other people, or are by nature active and experience the Spirit most when they are doing something in which they find pleasure and meaning.

Pentecost is a wonderful picture of what the Spirit can and does do, but it is only one small part of the picture. So if the idea of manifestations of fire or speaking in tongues leaves you cold or confused, that’s okay. It just means that there will be different ways in which you experience the Spirit, even if you have not recognised them or named them as such.

So let’s look more closely at the verses I chose. The first two verses of Genesis leave us in no doubt about the fact that the Spirit is not just for Pentecost, because they remind us that the Spirit has always been with us as part of the eternal Godhead. We may speak of Pentecost as the first time the disciples received the Spirit, but it was far from her first appearance.

The Hebrew word used for Spirit here is ruach, which is feminine, and that is why I am using female pronouns to speak of the Spirit. In fact, the biblical scholar Wil Gafney translates this verse closer to "the Spirit, she hovered over the waters". I don’t think it’s the case that Father is male and Spirit is female as we normally understand those words, but rather that what we perceive as male and female all finds its source in God, and so while using male and female language of God risks setting up a false binary, I find it helpful in expanding my image of God beyond the old white man sitting on a cloud that has been so common in our Western imagination.

But more than the feminine language, l love this image of the Spirit hovering over the waters for its picture of quiet presence. The Spirit isn't really doing anything at this point, but she is there in the calm of nothing or the chaos of disorder, depending on how you think of the time when the earth was formless and void, and she is full of power and potential. I believe she is still there, hovering above the waters in the calm and the chaos of our own lives, reminding us that God is always present and powerful and rich with potential.

Moving on to the verses from Joel, we hear that the Spirit is promised to all people, and that she will bring dreams and visions, or perhaps we might say inspiration. Because dreams do not only come at night and visions are not only of the future, and neither we nor the Spirit are bound by the narrow interpretations we can put on those words.

For some, inspiration comes in the form of very particular messages from God. Words or pictures given for the person who receives them, or to be passed on to someone else. I have shared before that not long after I arrived here, another minister was praying for our church when he had an image of Eddie leading a band of children to a row of small chairs at the front. I trust that was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and I continue to pray that we will see it come to pass.

For others, inspiration comes in the form of ideas. New possibilities which start in our imaginations and can be turned into realities. For almost a decade now I have imagined a place called the Sanctuary, where people could come and find someone to talk to or space to pray. And then two years ago, I learned that a woman called Ruth had imagined and realised a similar place, except she called it Renew. I believe the Spirit is inspiring those imagined places, and is helping turn imagination into reality.

For others, inspiration comes in the form of creativity. Poetry, art, music, the gift of making something beautiful and meaningful. One of my favourite details in the Bible is the fact that the first person said to be filled with the Spirit is Bezalel, who received the Spirit in order that he might be a master of every craft and create things of beauty from wood and metal and gemstones for the temple. I love this reminder that every practical skill and manual task can become the work of the Spirit and used for the glory of God.

The verses we heard from John come from the Supper Discourses, when Jesus talks a number of times about the Spirit. A chapter before, Jesus promises the disciples that the Spirit will lead them into all truth, and this verse has always seemed really important to me, because it says that there is always more truth to discover, that God will keep speaking and so we need to keep listening. It also chimes with the tradition of associating the Spirit with Wisdom, which the scriptures call us to seek after and to treasure.

But then these verses go a step further. The Spirit of truth will testify about God, but the disciples must testify too. The Spirit is not a treasure to be hoarded but to be shared. She does not lead us into truth so that we can sit there feeling smug and right, but so that we can take that truth out into the world. That’s why the first thing the disciples did when they received the Spirit at Pentecost was go out into the streets, to tell the people of Jesus, to call them to be baptised, to promise that they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I talk about God for a living, and I still feel overwhelmed with panic at the idea of doing what the disciples did, but I think that’s okay, because there are other ways of testifying about God and sharing the Spirit. The missiologist Michael Frost talks about living questionable lives, lives that make people ask questions about why we do what we do, and being ready to answer those questions by speaking honestly about our faith and how it shapes us.

I once found myself sitting in a board game cafe having a conversation about the nature of God because I answered a basic question about what I had been doing that day by saying I was writing my dissertation on God and prayer. And then three weeks later I found myself in the same cafe having another conversation about the problem of evil because the person I had spoken to before had spent the three weeks since we’d met thinking about our conversation, and another person overheard us talking and joined in with questions of their own. It’s amazing where a simple word of testimony can take us.

Finally, we come to the passage from Galatians, perhaps the best known passage about the Spirit. These verses remind us that the Spirit is not just present with us, does not only inspire us, has more to bring to us than truth - by her presence and her inspiration and her truthfulness, she transforms us and so must look for her fruit as evidence of that transformation.

If any of the previous passages could be a sermon in their own right, this one could be a whole sermon series. In fact, Mike and I were part of leading a teaching series based on the fruit of the Spirit with a group for seven to eleven year olds back in Skipton, and it was one of the best things we did with them. Half way through the series we had a games evening, but so that we didn’t completely lose the thread of what we had been learning, we had one activity where we put the kids in groups and asked them to build a tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows, and at the end we asked them which part of the fruit of the Spirit they had seen their teammates exercise.

It was wonderful to hear them recognise the patience that one group had shown with a team member who was determined to eat the marshmallows, and the kindness another had shown in working alongside one another and trying out each other’s ideas. It was particularly encouraging to hear one child declare with great pride and admiration that their team leader had shown all of the fruit. I wonder how often we think to acknowledge and celebrate the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of those around us, or look to ourselves and ask what fruit we are bearing.

Do we love boldly and unconditionally and generously? How much joy do we find in the humdrum of life? Are we at peace even when our lives are in turmoil? Can we remain patient through frustrations and hardships? How often do we show simple acts of kindness? Do we strive after goodness? Are we faithful to God and to our beliefs and to those we are in relationship with? Would others say that we are gentle with them? Do we struggle to act with self-control? I think these are important questions to ask ourselves, not so that we turn this passage into a simple checklist and clap ourselves on the back if we can say we didn’t lose our temper and we stuck to the diet this week, but so that we can recognise and give thanks for the work that the Spirit is already doing in us, and seek even greater transformation and more abundant fruit.

We thank you that your Spirit is still hovering over the waters of our lives, and we ask that we will become more aware of her in our moments of calm and chaos.

We thank you that your Spirit inspires us to dream and imagine and create, and we ask that we will recognise that inspiration and make glorious use of it.

We thank you that your Spirit leads us into truth, and we ask that we will have the wisdom and the boldness to lead others into that truth.

We thank you that your Spirit transforms us from within, and we ask that we will see and bless others with the fruit of that transformation.

We pray that your Spirit will fall afresh on us this day and every day. Amen.


Towards the end of our service, we heard the Malcolm Guite's poem Pentecost. You can read the poem as well as a little about it, and even hear the poet himself reading it here. I don't want to say too much because I think poetry is better felt than dissected, but I will share a few thoughts which explain why I chose the poem as one of our readings.

Wind, water, fire, earth - there is a sense of completeness or of wholeness, when the wind and the water and the fire of the Spirit meet the earth of our humanity. I like that a lot. I also really like the imagery around language, and the suggestion of where the language of the Spirit might take us. We talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of crossing borders, and it is an act that is only made possible by the Spirit, which gives us the grace and the confidence and the words that we need. And how beautiful to think that God’s mother tongue is love in every nation! In every place and among every people, God speaks in words of love, because that is the first language he knows.


I've said quite a lot here, so I encourage you to take some time to sit with it and reflect on it. Perhaps return to the wonderings from the Godly Play story, or ask what else you might say of the Spirit from your own experience and understanding. But more important than anything else, take some time to sit and wait on the Spirit. I know she would love to come and spend some time with you.

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